Astroturfing: Worth the Risk?

In my previous post about Social Media Transparency,  I differentiated between transparency and authenticity. This week, I’m delving deeper into social media authenticity and exploring a very controversial SEO practice: Astroturfing.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, Oxford Dictionaries defines it as:

“the deceptive practice of presenting an orchestrated marketing or public relations campaign in the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public”

While exploring the topic, I found and submitted a great article to Digg called “Inauthenticity – Social Media’s Dirty Little Secret” by Sam Fiorella. He discusses the idea of inauthenticity as it applies to products and services reviews. Although there are consumers who actually contribute to common review websites like Yelp! and TripAdvisor, there are many sneaky “cyber shills who are paid to manually inflate positive reviews and ratings.” Shills are people who pretend to be enthusiastic customers in an effort to entice or influence other people’s buying habits and opinions.

Marketers often regard inauthenticity as something that can and should be avoided in order to maintain a good brand reputation. However, astroturfing is actually quite a popular strategy that has created a big industry both locally and overseas. Studies have emerged to support the idea that astroturfing is positively affecting brand perceptions and purchase decisions.

Source: SocialTimes.com by Neil Glassman

Source: SocialTimes.com by Neil Glassman

One danger Sam warns about is that increasing public awareness of astroturfing tactics will create more cynical and skeptical consumers. In the future, they may not rely on review websites and comments for fear that they may be “planted” and not authentic. After that happens, marketers will have to find a way to get the customer’s personal and trusted networks’ support because that’s where they’ll go to seek advice. Google Search Plus Your World takes a step in that direction by prioritizing content that has been created, shared, or promoted by a person’s personal social graph in the search results.

Source: SocialTimes.com by Neil Glassman

Source: SocialTimes.com by Neil Glassman

Strangely enough, there’s a high level of tolerance among marketers for this somewhat shady SEO tactic. Inauthenticity is sometimes the key to success, as Sam points out: “a small business can appear as big as it wants to portray itself through technology and design.” There are even job seeking advertisements that publicize the fact that marketers are looking for false reviewers… how much more obvious does it get? Perhaps that is a good indication that public awareness of astroturfing may not be as damaging as you might have imagined. Consider the following chart:

Source: SocialTimes.com by Neil Glassman

Source: SocialTimes.com by Neil Glassman

Only 8% of respondents would definitely stop purchasing from a brand they found out was planting reviews. Therefore, it might be worth investing some time in astroturfing to manage your brand’s reputation and boost consumer perceptions of your products and services. It shouldn’t be your first and only SEO tactic, but it is possible that it can benefit you in the end.

Do you think astroturfing is a good or bad practice? Have you ever used or considered using a cyber shill? What would you think of a brand if you found out they had been planting product and service reviews on the Internet or paying someone else to do so? Please leave your comments and share your thoughts.


9 comments on “Astroturfing: Worth the Risk?

  1. I never heard about astroturfing until now. I think it’s a bad practise. I’ve seen a lot of ads on tv and the internet with people’s reviews wondering if there were actually real. I can’t say that I’m shocked to see companies participating in this because they are just thinking purely about profit and how they can boost their sales. I agree with the article that it is very unauthentic and if I found out a company was doing this, I would try to avoid them. If a company was “outted” they will get a bad reputation and after this they may have a hard time getting consumers’ trust back. For example, I never trust any of the paid ads on TV because their “customer reviews” always look so fake. Why does a company have to pay someone to give them great reviews on their products, don’t they have any genuinely happy customers who would be happy to do this?

  2. What i meant to say is that I’ve never heard the term astroturfing.*

  3. Hi Kiran,

    Thank you for your comment. It’s funny as the charts demonstrate that unlike you many people wouldn’t really care or change their buying habits if they discovered their favourite brands were astroturfing. Personally, I agree with you that I would not be too happy to find out someone was doing it, but I don’t know if it would really make me avoid purchasing from them. I would lose a little respect for sure.

    Also, great point about developing a product that satisfies customers and makes them want to write genuine reviews themselves. Definitely a consideration when planning out your digital strategy.

  4. Its amazing that only 8% of customers would stop purchasing from a brand that was Astroturfing. It shows that customers don’t really care about being fooled. For myself, I would definitely be part of the 8%. If I don’t trust a company I won’t buy from them.

    Personally, I would not use astroturfing in my SEO, I don’t believe that it is a good practice. Many have failed by doing that and the brand was hurt. I do believe that if you have a good product, you should have good reviews. If not, then negative critics should help in changing where you are failing.

    That being said, thanks for your post. I did not know that a word existed for that concept.

  5. Very interesting post! I’m undecided on this point and the reason for that is, many people when posting a review on a site like Tripadvsior or Yelp only post the bad things. If someone is enjoying the product purchased or the great dinner they had then they may leave it at that and not go through the effort to post a positive review. However, if a person had a bad experience then it is more likely they will post a review and it will be obviously be negative.
    Astroturfing could be seen in such a light as balancing out your companies reviews. However, if used, be cautious and I wouldn’t make it a regular marketing practice.

  6. Hi Sophie,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I definitely agree with your point that the negative reviews are a fantastic opportunity to help you understand how to improve customer satisfaction.

  7. Yes Danielle I agree that most people who write reviews are writing to vent about a negative experience they had and warn others.

    Perhaps there needs to be more incentive for satisfied customers to write a review… not sure what that would be though

  8. It is disappointing to hear that astroturfing is becoming something of the ‘norm’ in the world of online reviews, but I’m not entirely surprised. I was already a bit of a skeptic about reviews…as I never write them, only read them. “Who is writing all of these reviews” I often think to myself.
    I think people still weigh the pros and cons of product benefits and offered services. The weight of a review for a purchase decision may change, but they will probably always be important. The key component is finding ways to trust the sources, as was mentioned in the article…

  9. Very informative post. I am very passionate about your topic and I really enjoyed the way you have presented it. I have to admit that I am the type of person that believes what I read, but if I were to find out about sneakiness….I would not use that service or product. I know that there is more and more deception happening, especially because it is harder and harder to uncover.
    Why can’t everyone just be honest?


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